In a tight-knit Mississippi college town, two students meet and fall and love. But while their relationship is fraught with the usual struggles of youth, something much darker simmers underneath. Months later, they find themselves drawn to a horror that will tear them from everything that they know.
Jaelyn Young grew up in Vicksburg, a city in western Mississippi. Her father, Leonce, was a Navy officer while her mother, Benita, worked as a superintendent at a local school. With Leonce often away overseas, Benita was a disciplinarian when it came to Jaelyn and her sister.
But despite a life of early curfews and strict rules, Jaelyn nonetheless grew into a fun-loving teen. Remembered as outgoing and confident, she was a member of the cheerleading squad and even got voted into the homecoming court. Unusually, she was academic as well and was especially passionate about robotics.
However, even though Jaelyn had many friends, she struggled to settle into a close social circle. Then, she quit the cheerleading squad, and her isolation grew. When her best friend Kimberly died during senior year, Jaelyn had never felt more alone.
In 2013 Jaelyn graduated high school and began attending Mississippi State University in Starkville, a three-hour drive from her home town. There, she began to test her boundaries. As well as exploring her spirituality, she started dating an older student named Matthew.
Among Matthew’s friends was senior Muhammad Dakhlalla, known as Moe. Having grown up in Starkville, he was the youngest of three brothers. His father, Oda, was an immigrant from Palestine while his mother, Lisa, had grown up in a Christian family in New Jersey.
Well known in their community, the Dakhlallas ran a restaurant, while Oda also preached as an imam at a mosque. Committed to his Muslim faith, he often urged his sons to be more religious in their daily lives. Moe himself was not especially devout, however.
By the time that he met Jaelyn, Moe was in his final year of a computer engineering and psychology degree. Usually shy around women, he enjoyed spending time with Jaelyn, impressed by both her beauty and her intelligence. And when Matthew and Jaelyn’s relationship hit the rocks, she and Moe soon became a couple.
Even from the start, however, Jaelyn and Moe’s relationship was troubled. Moe became isolated from his friends, and Jaelyn grew possessive and jealous. But one thing that they had in common was Jaelyn’s growing fascination with Islam. Then, in March 2015 she officially converted to the faith.
And it quickly became apparent that Jaelyn did not intend to take her conversion lightly. Just weeks later, in fact, she was wearing a full niqab – a long black robe that left just her eyes uncovered. Moreover, this was the beginning of a swift period of radicalization that would sweep the young couple away.
At some point in spring 2015 Jaelyn began watching videos of Islamic extremists on the internet. She subsequently became fixated on the terror group ISIS, spending her time researching their beliefs and reading copies of their magazines. Soon, she had Moe along for the ride as well.
For those following Jaelyn’s online presence, the rapid change must have seemed bizarre. Almost overnight, the bubbly cheerleader disappeared, replaced by a headscarf-wearing young woman who espoused sympathy for ISIS. Eventually, she and Moe began to consider traveling to Syria to support extremists who wanted to establish a caliphate, or a state governed by Sharia law.
In May 2015 Jaelyn made contact with people who claimed to be recruiters for ISIS. While Jaelyn wanted to provide assistance as a medic, Moe longed to be a fighter, or mujahid. Online, Jaelyn shared her hopes of joining the terrorist group and raising children to fight for their cause.
In June 2015 Jaelyn and Moe were married in a nikah, or Islamic wedding ceremony. And their union only seemed increase their desire to leave America and join ISIS. Jaelyn eventually took the lead, booking two plane tickets to Istanbul. There, they would meet their contact, who would take them onwards to Syria.
As they prepared to depart, Jaelyn and Moe left messages for family and friends. To his parents, Moe wrote of feeling hopeless working in an academic field that shunned change. Jaelyn, meanwhile, expressed shame at failing her parents and encouraged her sister to follow a different path.
On August 8, 2015, Jaelyn and Moe arrived at Mississippi’s Golden Triangle Regional Airport, ready to start their new lives. However, they never made it onto the plane. Instead, as they went to board, the FBI appeared, placing them both under arrest.
As it turned out, Jaelyn’s contacts weren’t really recruiters for ISIS at all. Rather, they were undercover FBI agents, trained to spot radicalization on home soil. And with Jaelyn’s open expressions across social media of her approval for ISIS, she had made herself an easy target.
At the time, there were hundreds of such investigations underway across the United States. With homegrown extremists being a major concern, it was common for FBI agents to spend time tracking the online activity of Islamic State supporters in the U.S.
But did the FBI agents unfairly incriminate Jaelyn and Moe in an act of entrapment? Or would the couple otherwise have eventually found their way to Syria through other means? The uncertainties regarding these issues – and other methods used in the war on terror – are at the heart of a debate that continues to this day.
Meanwhile, both Jaelyn and Moe are serving time in jail. Apparently, Moe confessed first, handing over letters that Jaelyn had sent him after their arrest. At his trial, he claimed to have been misled by terrorist propaganda. He how blames everything on his love for Jaelyn, saying that he was blinded by his feelings for her.